DENVER, CO – SEPTEMBER 12, 2023 – Winter is coming, and it’s signaling the onset of what seasoned 14er hikers term as “shoulder season” – that unpredictable autumnal phase when both weather and snow conditions are highly variable. The first substantial snowfall of the season has graced several of Colorado’s 14ers, including Longs and Pikes Peak, a fact that merits close attention for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.
Interestingly, the initial dustings of snow came later this year, falling several weeks past when the state typically sees its first snow, usually in the latter half of August. Local meteorologists are attributing this delay to variations in climate conditions, but also warn that strong El Niño patterns developing in the Pacific Ocean could result in above-average snowfall this season. This variability underscores the unpredictability that characterizes the shoulder season.
Last year, the ski season got off to a slow start due to warm conditions, but concluded with record levels of snowpack. This year, experts suggest timing your ski and snowboarding trips seven to ten days in advance for optimal conditions. Keystone Resort aims to open as early as possible in October, whereas Vail and Breckenridge are eyeing opening dates around November 10.
The term “termination dust” is used to describe the first significant snowfall that marks the end of favorable hiking conditions for some, transforming hikes like Longs Peak into more technically demanding climbs requiring additional safety gear. Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park was briefly closed due to snow and ice, signifying that extra caution is essential when venturing out into the mountains during shoulder season.
In the coming days, further snow is anticipated to accumulate, affecting not just the 14ers but also the high country, foothills, and west metro regions. This forecast serves as a cautionary tale for those still considering late-season hikes or climbs on the 14ers.
Shoulder Season Safety Tips
Given the variable conditions during shoulder season, extra precautions are necessary for those considering hiking Colorado’s peaks:
- Check Weather Forecasts: Always consult weather forecasts before planning any hiking trips.
- Essential Gear: Along with regular hiking gear, carry additional safety gear such as microspikes, an ice ax, and extra layers for insulation.
- Communication: Make sure to inform someone of your hiking plans and anticipated return.
- Daylight: Be aware that daylight hours are shorter during shoulder season. Plan your hikes to return well before dusk.
- Trail Closures: Always check for any trail closures or restrictions due to weather conditions before you set out.
Learn more in our complete mountain safety guide.